Is the Courage Model Appropriate as LGBTQ Ministry?

Today’s post is from Keith Henry, an independent management consultant, Catholic apologist, and spiritual director in San Francisco.

The Church has long taught that LGBTQ Catholics are to be welcomed with pastoral ministries that are “appropriate.” Multiple ministries flourish, applicable to different people’s experience of faith and sexuality, sensitive to diverse communities, each graced with its own gifts and models of discipleship.

One of these apostolates is Courage, a network of support groups for Catholics who commit to follow an approach to chastity that was pioneered by their founder, Father John Harvey, OSFS. At its origin forty years ago, Courage was considered one among many appropriate LGBTQ ministry models. It has since moved to a position of semi-official endorsement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops by being mentioned as an exemplar in their 2006 document Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care. In many dioceses, it is the only LGBTQ ministry.

We witnessed this preference most recently when Detroit’s Archbishop Allen Vigneron restricted the outreach of two long-standing Catholic ministries, Dignity/Detroit and Fortunate Families/Detroit, accusing them of being “rivals” to sound teaching, and even “harmful.” In a pastoral letter he defined appropriate LGBTQ ministry with Courage-like language as being focused on “those among us who experience same-sex attraction and strive to live Christ’s chastity.”

Now is a good time to examine the claim that the Courage model is superior to other forms of pastoral care and engagement. Is a support group for celibacy a model appropriate for all who wish to deepen their commitment, grow in virtue, and serve the Church?

I am spiritual director to several young men who have previously sought ministry from Courage. Their unanimous answer to the above question is “Absolutely not.” They admit that support groups might be helpful for some Catholics. But for them, the model falls short because, whether consciously or not, it encourages participants to be ashamed, alienated, and unnecessarily anonymous.

Ashamed.

Courage chaplains often ask new members to view the film, Desire of the Everlasting Hills. The film profiles three conversion stories. Paul is unfulfilled by promiscuity. Dan comes to the Church after engaging in needy relationships. Rilene leaves her partner after decades of feminist activism as a couple. Testimonies like these are important to Courage, showing that it is possible to leave shameful lives behind and find support in the Church.

Frank D’Amore, the president of Dignity/Detroit recently noted, “Courage is like a 12-step program, which is kind of insulting. I don’t need a 12-step program. It’s ludicrous.”  He is correct. When Father John Harvey founded Courage in 1980, he based it on Alcoholics Anonymous and his earlier ministry with sex-addicted priests. So, for example, attendees are asked to (Step 1) admit that they are powerless over homosexuality and (Step 2) ask for God’s grace to restore them to health.

In my experience, effective LGBTQ ministry takes a more positive approach. Ministers listen for virtue and build from there. Courage instead, from its first steps, frames sexual identity as vice. It is irresponsible for dioceses to urge attendance at recovery support meetings for LGBTQ faithful who do not struggle with addiction and shame.

Alienated.

Dan, the man featured in the movie mentioned above, wrote a 2017 memoir, Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay, in part to explain why Courage uses the phrase “people who experience same-sex attractions” rather than “LGBTQ” and other terms which, he says, “could give the impression that same-sex attractions define a separate category or type of person.” His book, like the ministry, insists that LGBTQ-positive naming is an endorsement of a false human identity. In committing to Courage, Dan believes he must leave behind the labels that did him harm.

While this moral framework might be helpful for Courage’s purposes, it is highly insensitive to Catholics who have healthy integrated sexual identities. The young men I work with are equipped with the moral powers of well-formed consciences, self-mastery and habits of virtue. I find they formed these habits as Catholics, not only via engagement with the Church but often with the support of the broader LGBTQ community. Their identities were formed in spiritually, emotionally, and mentally healthy ways.

Anonymous.

The 2006 USCCB pastoral letter, Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination, suggests that LGBTQ people not reveal their identities “in the context of parish life.” Courage takes this advice to heart, and takes secrecy a step further. Their handbook states:

“Although a contact phone number and email address for the Chaplain are to be provided, care must be taken not to provide the location and times of meetings publicly in order to protect the anonymity and confidentiality of those with same-sex attractions.”

For support groups, the utility of anonymity can be helpful. For other sorts of ministries, public witness is crucial. The gay Catholic men I walk with in spiritual direction are highly motivated, optimistic, and committed to evangelization and involvement in parish life. Anonymity is not appropriate to their vocation. Gatekeeping stifles their engagement in the Church.

It’s a pity that, when presenting Courage as a preferred ministry model, bishops effectively establish criteria, not just for ministers but for those to whom we minister! Many enthusiastic and faithful LGBTQ Millennials are well formed in ways consonant with Catholic norms. They are discouraged and confused when asked to feel shame, abandon identity, and remain quiet when they seek to be emboldened.

For two millennia, Church teaching on sexuality and gender has been complex and controversial, but it has always been rooted in building virtue and promoting human dignity. In that time LGBTQ Catholics have walked a journey longer, truer and more beautiful than twelve steps.

Keith Henry, September 28, 2020

10 replies
  1. cheryl rogers
    cheryl rogers says:

    This article strikes close to my heart as a co-founder of Dignity/Buffalo. I belong to a parish, Our Lady of Hope, staffed by priests of the order of Our Lady Mary Immaculate. They are the order in Buffalo that houses and advertises for the Courage and Encourage groups of the diocese. I find I cannot after MANY hours of discernment remain in this parish as I cannot be present in an environment that for years through Dignity, New Ways Ministry, Call for Action, Pax Christi etc have groomed me thankfully to finally recognize that when God made me, as HE/SHE did, I was said to be made “VERY GOOD”. I find it very hard to remain in a parish with an order that propagates shame, hiding, guilt and all the negative/evil feelings that push me out of the church, my faith, my God given right to BE, and to feel loved as the Child of God that I was made to serve. How can the church which speaks of God as Love be one which propagates HATE and continued persecution of LBGTQ parishioners? and think that they aren’t?????? So this article has helped to me face the reality that IF I am to remain a Catholic in Buffalo, NY I will have to leave my parish of Our Lady of Hope and go to another parish more welcoming and more Christian, as St. Joseph’s University Church, or because the American bishops are continuing to take a strong stance for Trump and also continue the persecution of LBGTQ Catholics, I may finally with great regret and sorrow need to be nourished by another denomination more Christian then the Catholic Church such as the United Church of Christ or the more full light churches of the Lutheran or Episcopal view. What would Jesus say about all of these conditions placed on the LBGTQ community of believers which affect not only us but the entire Catholic Church and how it walks or does not walk in the message of Christ?????? especially with the LBGTQ community whose entire basis when you get right down to it is the ‘living in Love’ for each other! God help us all.

    Reply
  2. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    This “ministry” appears to be psychological bullying. It ‘s a hard NO for me. I am an old woman now, and the longer I live and examine my conscience, the more I am sure that all true church teaching should lead us to “the most loving act.” It is not loving to ask people to go into the closet and to be ashamed /deny who they are. Accepting LGBTQ people (or any “othered” person) is as much about the majority group member as the LGBTQ person. It is incumbent on the straight congregation members to find a path to loving interactions, doing one’s part to create a welcoming and accepting environment. Yes, ACCEPTING. For me, accepting means that we want for the other what we would have for ourselves. Personally, I want a family life, a civic life, a work life, and a church community life. I want (and have) an intimate relationship and children. I want secure employment and healthcare so my financial needs are met. I want freedom of speech and all the freedoms the Constitution allows. I want access to all the Catholic sacraments that support these wholesome human desires. This is why the church must extend all sacraments, including matrimony and/or ordination, to LGBTQ people. Anything less is participating in the exclusion and “othering” of an entire group of human beings who should be loved and cherished by us.

    Reply
  3. Thomas F. Luce
    Thomas F. Luce says:

    I couldn’t believe reading this article that nowhere in the piece was it mentioned that “Courage” aka “conversion” therapy has now for a long while been studied and is rejected by all health professions as seriously detrimental to the health of our young people as they develop their sexuality. And I can’t believe that New Ways Ministry didn’t put in bold type the truth of this so-called ministry. In the past New Ways Ministry has condemned “conversion” therapy. 20 states now have passed laws banning “conversion” therapy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversion_therapy

    Reply
    • Hank
      Hank says:

      COURAGE is not conversion therapy.
      I have been with COURAGE for years and it has been very beneficial to me.
      I have never been asked to change my sexual orientation.

      Reply
    • Francis DeBernardo, Editor
      Francis DeBernardo, Editor says:

      Hello, Tom. Courage does not officially support conversion therapy. Yet, people who have attended local meetings have sometimes been directed or encouraged to go through “conversion therapy” to change their orientation. At a 1997 conference, I had a conversation with Fr. John Harvey, OSFS, founder of Courage, and he said he was adamant that people who attended Courage meetings should not be directed to “conversion therapy.” He said his position was based on an old maxim in moral theology that “what cannot be achieved cannot be required.”

      Reply
    • David Rios
      David Rios says:

      Courage is NOT conversion therapy. I’m not sure where you got that, but it is not true.
      Courage is also only partly about the 12 steps, the richer part of the framework for COURAGE is Theology of the Body, which healing in all the right areas, including healing the deep deep shame we inherit.

      Reply
      • Thomas F. Luce
        Thomas F. Luce says:

        Hi David, I did use “aka” to tie Courage to conversion therapy. I do acknowledge that Courage does not accept that it is “conversion therapy”. However, for people still trying to live within the catholic church, celibacy, totally refraining from any actual same-sex relationships, is still the rule and Courage assists in people following this celibate life. The catechism still labels homosexuality as “objectively disordered…” Nos. 2357-59.) So Courage is support for living a chaste life–sexual relationships are only valid between a man and woman in marriage. O.K. It doesn’t try to convert from homosexual acts, but it does support doing what is necessary to totally deny one’s God-given sexual orientation. The recent moves to try to formulate the command to love one another, respect one another, within the catholic church are a bit of love, but not at all recognizing God-given sexual orientation. Someday maybe, as with the condemnation of Galileo and his support for heliocentrism, this might change?

        Reply
  4. Garrett Johnson
    Garrett Johnson says:

    My name is Garrett and I am a member of the Courage apostolate. I joined over 7 years go becuase I was dissatisfied with the homosexual identity that had been assigned to me at a young age because of traits that have nothing to do with sexual orientation.

    From the beginning I was welcomed into the community and treated with dignity and respect. I never felt any shame over my behavior and was shown, over time, that my desires and behavior do not define me.

    Over time I began to make connections with the men and women in the community and began to open my heart in a way that I hadn’t since the rejection I felt from the men closest to me in my early years. As my heart opened to these chaste friendships my attraction toward men diminished. This helped me see that my attraction was a result of feeling rejected by men. This came as a natural result of opening myself up to chaste friendships not because of anything Courage pushed on me.

    In regards to repairative therapy I will just say that ALL therapy is repairative. Wounds need healing and repairing and as healing and repair take place change comes in different ways for different people.

    And lastly the anonymity is to protect people who wish to seek out this kind of a community without the risk of being outed to family and friends. It has nothing to do with shame. There are many people who hate what Courage stands for and the people who are part of it so Course does what it has to do to protect those who wish to remain anonymous. I’ve spoken about my involvement with the apostolate from the first day I entered, on my YouTube channel, and was never told to keep quiet or hide my identity.

    This is my experience with Courage and it reflects the majority of the people I know in the apostolate.

    Reply
    • Keith Henry
      Keith Henry says:

      Thank you, Garrett, for your story. It lends good support to my belief that Courage is a great blessing for some LGBTQ Catholics. In particular, the model has grown to incorporate aspects of the Theology of the Body (see David Rios’ comment above) and emerging theologies of same-sex friendship. I am delighted that the Church offers these tools for spiritual growth.

      It is not my intent to be perceived as hostile to the Courage model. My piece is hostile on to the idea that it is the ONLY model that can be used. In recent years, I have seen a generation of Catholics (even converts! thanks be to God) who are excited and engaged in the New Evangelization. And they are engaged in their Catholic Identity as openly gay men and women. They carry none of the baggage or shame that my generation (I am in my 50’s) carries.

      Thus, the danger to the Church is NOT the fact that Courage exists or is promoted. The danger is that other ministries, which could help this new generation unlock the grace they’ve been given, are being suppressed as “rivals.”

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *